What do women really want?
From Byron to Poldark’s Aiden Turner, historian investigates female lust
WHEN the BBC aired its updated version of Poldark in 2015, the actor playing its eponymous hero almost caused an internet meltdown. A shirtless Aidan Turner subsequently caused fans to interrupt filming in Cornwall; women, reportedly in tears, had to be removed after pestering him for photographs. Turner, in his role as Ross Poldark, had attained the status of heartthrob.
But what does that label mean, and what does its status imply? Dyhouse, a professor of history at Sussex University who writes about gender and culture, is taking seriously a subject that too often invites sniggers. As she points out, women have long been the object of the male gaze. What happens when that is turned around, and the man is the object of the female gaze?
Needless to say, this is a heterosexual female gaze, which Dyhouse for some reason doesn’t specify. But what heterosexual women desire in a heartthrob is surprisingly diverse, and not always as obvious as some might think. Before Turner, there was Rudoph Valentino, and before Valentino there was Byron. Between Turner and Byron, what has changed? As women’s position in society has moved on, does that mean the way a woman looks at men, and what looking implies, has moved on, too?
Or perhaps the heartthrob is indicative of some kind of constant in heterosexual female desire. Dyhouse places women’s desire somewhere between these two attitudes, a tussle between progress and the non-changing. And as she ranges through literary representations from Darcy and Rochester to Christian Grey and Edward Cullen; through film heartthrobs Richard Chamberlain and Marlon Brando to George Clooney, we do indeed see both difference as well as the same. For women have liked a bit of the exotic stereotype, as we see in Valentino’s The Sheikh, just as much as they have adored the blue-blood aristocrats of Georgette Heyer novels. And they have swooned over ‘feminine’ men like Liberace, as much as over ‘masculine’ ones like Clint Eastwood.
What women have wanted from men in real life, though, has changed. “As the 20th century drew to its close,” Dyhouse writes, “women wanted more from their ideal men than integrity, breadwinning and credit cards: they wanted equality, partnership and communication.” In the 1950s, for instance, a decade now regarded as a “period of instability by historians”, Dyhouse writes, “new models of desirable masculinity” appeared, to reflect the change in society. James Dean, Elvis, and Che Guevara represented the rebel, the rock star, and the revolutionary. These new, different types appear during times of social change, she argues.
ONE can only wonder then, in the current political climate of uncertainty and anxiety, what kind of heartthrob will emerge to challenge the Poldarks of recent times, for Dyhouse also argues that even today the “appeal of the powerful male remains strong.” It would be fascinating to know how many white women who voted for US president Donald Trump are also keen readers of traditional romance fiction; Dyhouse argues that, even now, “attachment to a rich and powerful man…(offers) the promise of a life transformed: comfort, luxury, new horizons and a social world transformed.” As she points out, the years of second wave feminism that saw the rebirth of feminism also saw sales of romance fiction rocket.
She highlights some fascinating details in the course of her history: Valentino’s wife, Natacha Rambova, had influence over his image; the actress Alla Nazimova worked on his appearance; June Mathis wrote the screenplay for one of his biggest hits, the film Blood and Sand; Dorothy Arzner edited that film. The novelist Elinor Glyn reportedly schooled him in “how to make love to Gloria Swanson” in the film On the Rocks. As Dyhouse shows, most heartthrobs are the inventions of women, from the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, to Barbara Cartland and E L James.
She also makes a link between heartthrobs and food. In the novels of Betty Neels, for example, a popular writer of medical romances in the late 20th century, she depicts not only a world that is rapidly vanishing, full of titled men with butlers and Bentleys, but also lots of food. “Escape and solace” are essential for readers who feel deprived of both romance and actual sustenance. Desire, after all, is about lack.
This could have made for a sorrowful book, a shameful history about what women want and need, and never attain. But it’s quite the opposite: a rather celebratory study of heterosexual female desire that embraces its reactionary, as well as its progressive, aspects. An uneasy embrace in the end perhaps, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
James Dean, Elvis, and Che Guevara represented the rebel, the rock star, and the revolutionary